What a shocker. Roughly two years after the U.S. economy imploded due to the wretched excesses of Wall Street (not to mention a housing boom gone bust), the Irish government announced in mid-November that it was on the verge of collapse. Shortly after the nation had signed off on a $114 billion bailout, Prime Minister Brian Cowen said he would dissolve the government after passage of the nation’s 2011 budget in early December, setting the stage for a new election next year.
While Ireland appears poised to become the first political casualty of the debt crisis in the Euro zone (can Portugal or Spain be far behind?), the beat goes on. For while the Irish economy, a.k.a. the “Celtic Tiger,” is now a silenced pussycat, the tiny green nation still provides a wealth of hotel, castle and urban properties that cater to upscale travelers as well as hardy golfers willing to don a sweater in the off season.
Now through March, when remote venues in less populated areas have golf and only golf to offer, the concept of booking into a top-class hotel in Dublin with ready access to a large number of courses on the outskirts of the city seems far more appealing.
One of the finest hotels in the city is the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin, a relative newcomer situated in the residential and embassy district of Ballsbridge. The 258-room, Georgian-style property is set within the Royal Dublin Society’s 42-acre show grounds. Chauffeur-driven or self-drive transportation and tee times can be arranged by the concierge. Best of all, when the round is done, you can return to one of the most youthful and vibrant cities in Europe to explore a place eulogized by James Joyce and celebrated by U2.
On its website, the Four Seasons exhibits a fine sense of distinction under its “Other Recreation” tab, where it divides golf into two types: Parkland courses and Links courses. There is no substitute for battling the elements on a seaside links, but the refined inland layouts south and west of Dublin offer pleasant respite from the salty chill of the coast. There’s also enough rain to keep everything green in these parts–Co. Kildare, horse country, and Co. Wicklow, the ‘Garden of Ireland,’ are two of the sunniest places in Eire.
Two the recommended parkland facilities with an estimate travel time of 40 minutes from the hotel (non-Irish drivers should allow an hour) are Powerscourt and Druids Glen.
Situated on an exquisite 1,000-acre estate that dates to the 16th century, Powerscourt Golf Club is a 36-hole complex tucked away in sleepy Enniskerry. The club’s East Course, laid out by former Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy in 1996, has a good mix of holes, their fairways offering fine views of the Wicklow Mountains. Deep bunkers and small, multi-tiered greens provide plenty of challenge, but take heart: All the par threes play downhill.
Far grander is Powerscourt’s West Course, a majestic design by Scotsman David McLay Kidd (of Bandon Dunes fame). The course, routed on much hillier ground than the original layout, has shallower bunkers and larger greens. With its towering pines and 80-foot elevation change, the layout, opened in 2003, could pass for a rugged track in the Scottish Highlands. “Given the broad nature of the landscape, I aimed for broad, soft movement of the terrain, with most of the greens open to a running approach shot,” Kidd said. The scenery is spectacular: Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Irish Sea can be spied from the topmost holes of the West Course. A Georgian-style clubhouse serves both venues.
Before heading back to Dublin, be sure to tour the estate’s 45 acres of walled and tiered English, Italian and Japanese formal gardens, a sublime blend of flowers, statuary, terraces, lakes and the tallest waterfall in Ireland. Horticulturists rank these gardens among the loveliest in Europe. Happily, the gift shop sells seeds of nearly all the flower species cultivated at the estate.
Not far from Powerscourt is Druids Glen Resort. Its namesake course, host of the Murphy’s Irish Open from 1996-99 and known as the “Augusta of Europe,” is a brilliant test that rewards shotmakers who can maneuver the ball to sloping fairways and well-defended greens. Built by Hugo Flinn, an engineer who made a fortune in large-scale civil engineering projects in Africa, the layout, designed by Pat Ruddy and Tom Craddock, is marked by subtle earthworks, formal topiaries, gurgling waterfalls and unusual suspension bridges. The entries to several of these bridges are planted in herbs that, trodden underfoot by passing golfers, release their aroma. The golf course circulates around Woodstock House, a restored 1770 manor house. It is one of the coziest clubhouses in all of Ireland. The view from the roof of the Irish Sea is sublime.
Ruddy, the Pete Dye of Ireland, later returned to the resort to build Druids Heath, a prodigious 7,434-yard, par-71 layout. A multi-theme spread routed among billowing hills, with fantastic views from the topmost holes of the Irish Sea and the Wicklow Mountains, the layout rambles around old farm ponds and descends into the mini-canyons of spent rock quarries. On a clear day, the hills of Wales can be seen 200 miles to the east. At full stretch, Druids Heath, an artful blend of links, parkland and heathland design styles, presents a world-class test of golf on a typically breezy day. Clearly, Ruddy is not in the business of building milquetoast golf courses. The resort is located in a mouthful of a town–Newtownmountkennedy.
Among other parkland venues, the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin lists The K Club, site of the 2006 Ryder Cup; Glen of the Downs, located at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain; and St. Margaret’s, a pleasant spread located 30 minutes north of the hotel near the airport. But at the end of the day, no red-blooded golfer can leave Ireland without experiencing a round on a true links course.
Of the many fine seaside links recommended—there’s Portmarnock, which needs no introduction, and The European Club, a brawling, quirky links set above Brittas Bay 90 minutes south of the city—the Royal Dublin Golf Club beckons a mere seven miles as the crow flies from the hotel.
Founded in 1885 as The Dublin Golf Club, the club, Ireland’s second-oldest, received its Royal designation in 1891 and moved to its present location on Bull Island in 1889. The island, a man-made sand bank, was engineered by Captain William Bligh of HMS Bounty fame in the early 1800’s to deepen Dublin port and prevent silting in the shipping lanes. The current out-and-back links was fashioned by H.S. Colt in 1920. Most of the greens were recontoured and all of the holes were tweaked and lengthened four years ago by Martin Hawtree, the third-generation English designer who has touched up historic links courses throughout Ireland and the U.K. At 7,269 yards from the blue tees, this formerly sporty links is now a very serious test that never fails to delight Christy O’Connor, Sr., the 86-year-old legend who joined Royal Dublin as a club pro in 1959 and remains affiliated with the storied links to this day.
While relatively flat and seemingly innocuous, there’s much more to Royal Dublin than meets the eye. I like Bernard Darwin’s description of the links, which he refers to as Dollymount after a local neighborhood: “Save possibly at St. Andrews, I feel as if I have been in more bunkers at Dollymount that on any other course,” he wrote. “This seems to be the feature at Dollymount, the amount of low cunning, if I may term it, with which the bunkers are placed.”
Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1981, Bull Island, which continues to grow slightly each year, attracts more bird watchers than any other location in Ireland. While I saw plenty of wild fowl and waders during my round several years ago, mostly I remember the large, long-legged hares bounding across the dun-colored fairways. I also remember how short and fun the front nine played downwind, and how very long and difficult the incoming holes played into the teeth of the prevailing breeze. While not a beauty in same league with Ballybunion or Royal County Down, the links serves up fine views of the Howth peninsula, the blue waters of Dublin Bay and the Wicklow hills to the southwest.
In the wake of its major refurbishment, there can’t be a better links anywhere in closer proximity to a capital city than Royal Dublin, much less a more charming wooden bridge to cross than the one that extends from the mainland to Bull Island. The club offers last minute specials that offer a substantial discount from the normal green fee.
After the game, be sure to explore Dublin, a city transformed by a younger generation (half the population is under 30) into a lively, upbeat urban center. Grafton Street, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare with St. Stephen’s Green at one end and Trinity College (1592) at the other, is a prime shopping and people-watching zone. For many, no trip to Dublin is complete without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate. The story of the famous stout begins over 250 years ago and ends in Gravity (a bar in the sky) with a complimentary pint and a panoramic view of the city. Temple Bar, Dublin’s cultural and nightlife quarter, is a pulsing enclave of cafes, shops and art galleries. To explore it, simply follow the cobbled lanes between Dame Street and the River Liffey. Bookish types can trace the Irish literary tradition at the Dublin Writers Museum, which occupies a grand 18th-century mansion and celebrates the works of Joyce, Shaw, Wilde, Yeats, Beckett, Swift and other Irish writers. The pubs, needless to say, are peerless and everywhere. If you don’t feel like roaming, The Bar at the Four Seasons has one of the largest and most exclusive Irish whiskey lists in the nation. Have bartender Kobus Van Zyl, a former whiskey tasting champion, make a recommendation.